Monday, July 1, 2019

Remembering Dr. Norman Geisler

It was with much sadness that I learned this morning of the passing of Dr. Norman L. Geisler at 2:10am on July 1st. With this sadness came also a flood of fond memories I have of him. I first heard of Dr. Geisler (this is what his students called him) when I was in high school, and every year Hank Hanegraaff would have him on the Bible Answer Man radio show for a week to answer audience questions and plug his new books. The year I listened he had written an apologetics book on the resurrection of Christ, and after listening to him that week I knew that I would never entertain a doubt in my mind that the resurrection of Christ was a real historical event. That an Evangelical Protestant could have such a profound effect on me moved me, and it changed me. Till this day, when I feel tempted to do something I shouldn't, I always remind myself that it is because I believe without a doubt that Christ rose from the dead that I will resist the temptation. This is how my conscience first reacts. It usually works too.

Years later when I graduated Hellenic College in Boston I got married, and because of the negative vibes through scandals in the seminary at the time, my wife and I mutually agreed to leave Boston for a few years and start our life together elsewhere by ourselves. Our first choice was California, but it was too expensive. Then a friend and fellow-seminarian from North Carolina told me I should move to Charlotte, which was cheap and a great place to get away from things in Boston. Then he informed me that Norman Geisler started his own seminary called Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte with accredited degrees in apologetics and philosophy, and while in Charlotte I could take classes there. This sold me. Not that I could study apologetics or philosophy, but that I could actually take classes under Dr. Geisler and a host of other world-renowned Evangelical thinkers and apologists. After all, it was a time when I wanted to expose myself to other things outside of Orthodoxy and challenge myself. The only issue I had was how they would accept me as an Orthodox Christian that wasn't at all interested in their theology.

When I arrived in Charlotte in 1998, I went to the grounds of the newly-established Southern Evangelical Seminary. I believe it was in its third year of operation at the time. The seminary had no building. A local Protestant church allowed Dr. Geisler to set up some trailers in the back and use a few of its classrooms until they raised enough money to build its own campus and buildings. When I entered there were a little over a hundred students, all Evangelicals, except me and an Anglican guy. Coming out of a scandal-ridden Orthodox seminary, it was refreshing to see a seminary that was absolutely unified in its purpose with extreme pride in its mission. In my three years there, I only saw friendships established and never a negative vibe. And every single student was there for one main reason - to be taught by Dr. Geisler. I was afraid the following would be cultic, but it was anything but cultic. In fact, Dr. Ron Rhodes was one of my professors there who taught us about various cults, so when you spend hours learning about cults you tend to discern what is a cult and what isn't.

What began as a desire to take some classes at an Evangelical seminary became me enrolling in a completely Evangelical seminary as an Orthodox Christian fully aware of the differences. I enrolled because it was by far the most profound learning experience I ever had, and it continues to be, despite me having attended various other Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant schools and studied under dozens of professors. The first class I took with Dr. Geisler was what everyone first takes with him - Apologetics 101. All his classes were jammed, and if you ever took a class with him you know why. Till this day, he is the best professor I ever had, and that includes eight years at Hellenic College/Holy Cross, five classes at Harvard, three classes at Boston College, two classes at St. John's Catholic Seminary, and four classes at Gordan-Conwell, among others. Not that I agreed with everything he said. I went there knowing we would have many disagreements. But his knowledge and memory was profound, more than I could have imagined, and it reflected in how he taught in his authoritative and clear but monotone voice, often mixing a bit of tried and true humor to the vast information we were trying to absorb.

Clearly Dr. Geisler (and all the professors there) knew little to nothing about Orthodoxy and the Church Fathers, so I think I intimidated him and others there a bit, and perhaps he was skeptical of my intentions (Dr. Gary Habermas questioned my intentions publicly and I had to defend myself in front of other students, but I won them over in the end). My intention however was to go there as a learner and nothing else. I would never even speak about Orthodoxy unless I was asked, and I was only asked twice. I remember once before class a student asked Dr. Geisler about the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series, and he shrugged it off as just an outdated commentary of Church Fathers interpreting the Bible by people who believed the older the interpretation the better. He himself loved and wrote books on Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas, but all the other Christian writers and Church Fathers until Martin Luther were insignificant to Dr. Geisler, and he like most Evangelicals only accepted a limited view of the first Four Ecumenical Synods while rejecting the rest. When I heard things like this, I would cringe and wanted to say something, but I felt myself to be not only just a student there and not a professor, but I was a guest who was received with trust, openness and hospitality. The program I was enrolled in was for three years, and I knew what I got myself into, and silence was a small price to pay for all the other great things I experienced and learned.

Usually my communication with Dr. Geisler was in passing. He always had a smile on his face and really delighted in speaking with me, but it was a conflicted relationship because he knew I was not a Protestant. One day while having lunch at a nearby restaurant with my wife and a friend, Dr. Geisler came in alone and we invited him to sit with us. It was mainly us asking him questions, as he was always interesting to listen to, but I was also covering for myself hoping he wouldn't ask about my background, because I valued my experience there and didn't want to jeopardize it with who I really was. Another time I drove him home with others in the car and met his lovely wife and now widow Barbara. I was amazed how humble he was and how humble he lived, despite being a world-renowned figure who sold thousands upon thousands of books that were translated into multiple languages, and whose influence spanned astronomical proportions.

Unfortunately it was not until my last year at SES that I found out that I couldn't receive the degree of Master's in Philosophy of Religion I worked on for three years unless I signed the Statement of Faith the school goes by. It was a purely Calvinist Statement of Faith, and half of it I couldn't agree with. I tried talking to each of the main professors individually to see if anything could be done, but they said no, with regret, and sometimes some argument, as we all felt like a family by that time, with the school being so involved and small. But it also gave me for the first time an opportunity to speak with Dr. Geisler alone in his office. He spoke about how he enjoyed having me as a student and he had great respect for me, but the disconnect in our confession left him with no other choice as President of the school but to be consistent and not allow me to get a degree. Hearing it from him made me respect his decision. He then called a final meeting of all the professors with me alone, and they all told me how much they appreciated me and my time and contribution there, but they had to stick to their decision with conflicted hearts. I came to realize it was all for the best, as I was there only to learn and experience, and a degree would have been icing on the cake, but in hindsight it probably is better I don't have a degree from a Protestant school.

In our final meeting of all the professors with me, they asked me why I decided to enroll in SES in the first place, even though I was Orthodox. I told them about what happened to me when I first heard Dr. Geisler in high school, and when I heard he started a school years later I jumped at the opportunity to take some classes under him, and how it was the best academic experience I ever had, and that the positive things I learned I would always carry and utilize in my own ministry. They all smiled, especially Dr. Geisler. And before I left he asked me for my phone number in Boston so that if he is ever nearby he would call me and we could meet. I left in 2001. A few years later his secretary called me in Boston and told me that Dr. Geisler would be lecturing in a church in Vermont and asked if I could meet him there. Unfortunately I was unable to do so, but it was the last time I heard from him. In 2006 I visited Charlotte again to attend the chrismation of a friend I helped introduce to Orthodoxy, and I went to visit the new campus of SES. No longer was it a few trailers, but an actual campus with buildings. I felt some pride seeing how much it developed. Dr. Geisler had retired with his dream realized.

These and other such thoughts have occupied me today with his passing, as I remember not only Dr. Geisler's wide legacy, but also the impact he made on me. He was a man who loved the Lord, and would often repeat the Apostle Paul: "For me to live is Christ and to die is gain." He lived giving a defense for the hope that was within him. I pray that he has now gained the allotment of the saints in heaven with his longed for Lord.